Racism, police and black rights in the US

Fifty years since the civil rights movement, racism and poverty among blacks in the US are as bad as ever, writes Lachlan Marshall

The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police have become emblematic of the racism and police violence in the US.

Police officers effectively have a license to kill unarmed black men. In December tens of thousands demonstrated to remind them that “Black lives matter”.

The death of Michael Brown, who had his hands in the air when he was shot in Ferguson, St. Louis in August, sparked mass protests in Ferguson and across the country. Brown’s killer, white police officer Darren Wilson, was acquitted by a grand jury in November, triggering riots in the town.

In New York in July, Eric Garner was arrested for selling single untaxed cigarettes. His last desperate cry while he was in an illegal police chokehold, “I can’t breathe”, has become a rallying cry for protesters across the country.

His killer was also acquitted by a grand jury in early December.

In a further twist, on 20 December a mentally disturbed man shot dead two New York Police officers in retaliation for police killings. At one of the officer’s funerals police turned their backs on New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to protest his mild criticism of police brutality.

This triggered a conservative media storm under the absurd slogan “Blue lives matter” pressuring the “Black lives matter” movement to tone down its protests while the city mourns the dead police.

Yet the black men killed by police didn’t trigger any such official outcry—highlighting the continued relevance of the “Black lives matter” movement.

The cases of Eric Garner and Michael Brown are only two examples of the shockingly frequent police murders of unarmed black people on US streets.

According to FBI figures, between 2007 and 2012 white police killed two black men a week, or around 500 in total. Young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than young white men.

Blacks under siege

Fifty years since the civil rights movement, with Barack Obama, America’s first black president, in office, the situation has barely changed for the majority of working class African Americans.

The state remains profoundly racist. Every gain won in the civil rights arena has been compromised by increasingly heavy policing in black areas under the guise of the “war on crime” and “war on drugs”. While blacks and whites use marijuana at the same rate, blacks are four times as likely to be arrested and charged for possession.

This has resulted in an explosion in the prison population and branded millions of African Americans as felons for life, depriving them of voting rights and other entitlements to public funds—key demands of the civil rights movement. Academic Michelle Alexander has described this as the “new Jim Crow.”

Concentration of police resources in black neighbourhoods makes racist abuses by officers inevitable.

In Ferguson police harassment over petty infringements is a daily reality. African American drivers account for 86 per cent of stops by Ferguson police, with traffic fines the second largest source of revenue in the town.

In New York City police harassment is given official sanction under the “broken windows” theory, whereby laws governing petty infringements like vandalism or public drinking—or selling untaxed cigarettes—are strictly enforced with the idea this will prevent a lawless environment in which more serious crimes might take place.

This has amounted to a state of siege for underprivileged and coloured areas. Stop and frisk has terrorised millions of New Yorkers, with 87 per cent of those stopped being black or Hispanic. In the past 15 years NYPD cops have killed 179 people, 86 per cent of them black or Hispanic. In just three cases were officers indicted, leading to only one conviction.

Ironically, a slowdown by New York Police in protest at Mayor de Blasio’s alleged lack of support for them has demonstrated the gratuitous harassment that is par for the course in police work.

After the police union advised its members not to make arrests “unless absolutely necessary,” arrests dropped a whopping 66 per cent and traffic tickets 94 per cent. This exposes how “necessary” the bulk of their work really is.

The racist belief that all black men are dangerous is expressed through laws like “Stand Your Ground,” under which George Zimmermann was acquitted for murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin because he felt threatened.

Often the mere sight of a black youth is enough to arouse the fatal suspicion of cops or vigilantes like Zimmerman. In November 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead by police while he was playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park.

Economically depressed

The background to this assault on African Americans by the state has been the tearing apart of black communities as a result of the economic crisis and government neglect.

The great recession of 2008 savaged black communities. African American unemployment in St. Louis is 26 per cent, as against 6 per cent for whites. Across the country black Americans’ homes have been foreclosed at an alarming rate.

Cuts to social spending by the Obama administration and attacks on public school teachers and their unions undermine access to quality education for the black community. The corporatisation of education and spread of private charter schools is not only depriving black communities of free public education, but also disrupts the employment of thousands of black teachers who comprise a large part of the urban school workforce.

Overwhelmingly black cities like Detroit are simply being left to rot, with school closures and the dismantling of basic public amenities like water making life unbearable. Most white and wealthier residents have abandoned the bankrupt city, whose population has shrunk from almost two million to 750,000.

Detroit’s creditors are exacting inhumane sacrifices from the remaining population. Water rates are 50 per cent higher than elsewhere in the US and many homes have had their water forcibly cut off.

Obama and black America

Obama put great effort into mobilising black voters for his election and re-election. His presidency was said to have ushered in a “post-racial” era.

The latest police killings have further exposed the limits to the strategy of electing more blacks to positions of power while leaving the system unchanged.

Having a black president and Attorney General—not to mention the thousands of black city mayors and other officials—hasn’t been enough to prevent unemployment, home foreclosures and evictions soaring to record highs.

In fact their commitment to reviving American capitalism, which entails cuts to social spending vital to the needs of most African Americans, has made the situation worse.

Just before the acquittal of Garner’s killer and in response to Ferguson Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder proposed equipping police with 50,000 body cameras.

The subsequent acquittal of Garner’s killer, Daniel Pantaleo, made a mockery of this proposal. Garner was caught on camera choking to death as police officers pushed his chest into the pavement and broadcast on Youtube to a worldwide audience. Still the result was an exoneration for the killer cops.

Obama and Holder have appointed a Taskforce on 21st Century Policing to foster “public trust” between police and communities. But the $263 million Obama has pledged to police departments to further these aims would be far better used outside police hands.

The source of the problem is ongoing discrimination and poverty, and the leviathan policing and prison apparatus which targets and crushes the lives of millions of black people.

The aftermath of the killings has highlighted the estrangement of the black elite—who owe their status to the gains of the civil rights movement—from the daily lives of the majority of working class black Americans. Sharp class divisions have opened up in the Black community, with a small minority accepted into the middle class and some to positions of real power.

Their incorporation was a response by the US ruling class to the threat from the radical black movements of the 1970s. They have used the new black middle class to try to defuse the anger from below.

For example this elite, with Obama chief among them, preaches individual responsibility as the panacea to the problems of job and housing discrimination, racial profiling by police, and poverty experienced by the black community. This amounts to blaming the victim.

Obama booster and civil rights advocate Reverend Al Sharpton had the gall to proclaim from the stage at Brown’s funeral: “And now we get to the 21st century, we get to where we’ve got some positions of power. And you decide it ain’t Black no more to be successful. Now, you want to be a ‘nigger’ and call your woman a ‘ho.’ You’ve lost where you’re coming from.”

At a rally in Washington D.C. in December Sharpton tried to prevent younger activists from Ferguson speaking to the demonstration, fearing they would contradict the moderate message he wanted to convey.

There is growing bitterness with the black leadership, Obama in particular. Despite African Americans voting for him en masse in the 2008 and 2012 elections, they have little to show for it.

Fundamental change and a challenge to entrenched racism in the police forces and the state are needed to overcome black oppression in America. Working class issues must be at the forefront of this.

Workers fighting for a $15/hour wage and union recognition in the service industry, in which much of the black working class make their living, have joined forces with those campaigning around racial profiling and police brutality in the new wave of protests.

The hope is that a new layer of activists can pick up where the civil rights struggle left off.


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